When you use your new Mac for the first time, the fresh OS
installation and new configuration will have the responsiveness and
speed that’s intended by Apple. For the most part, this should continue
throughout the life of the system. However, as with any system, there
are times when you may experience slowdowns.
These can happen either from running low on resources like RAM or
hard drive space, from software incompatibilities, or even from errors
with your system.
While you can tackle these problems if they arise, there are several
things you can do to keep your system running in tip-top shape and
reduce the probability of them happening in the first place.
Minimize your experience
Having numerous menu extras and other
background tasks running can lead to odd slowdowns or hangs if one or
more of them are experiencing problems. (Click to enlarge image.)
Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET)
Often people install a number of utilities and tools that sound
useful but which they rarely or never use. At times these tools include
background tasks like scanners, monitors, syncing routines, or other
functions that simply increase the potential for problems, so consider
removing them or disabling their services if you do not use them.
This applies to Apple’s built-in services as well, which include
features like file and printer sharing that can be set up in the system
preferences. If you rarely use these, then disabling them will not only
help security, but it will reduce the potential for odd slowdown or
other problems, should they encounter issues.
Overall, just be mindful of what you have installed on your system,
especially with regard to drivers, monitors, scanners, and other
programs that run in the background, and if you do not need it, then
turn it off or uninstall it.
Monitor hard drive and RAM usage
Beyond limiting the use of background services and third-party
utilities, make it a habit to monitor the free space on your hard drive.
One easy way to do this is to enable the Finder’s Status bar in the
View menu, which will show up at the bottom of every Finder window and
displays the space available on the current hard drive. If the space
ever becomes too low, the system will not be able to manage virtual
memory which can lead to drastic system slowdowns. As a rule of thumb,
be sure to keep available space above about 5 to 10 percent of the
drive’s overall capacity.
A couple of the leading culprits for hogging hard drive space are the
Trash and Downloads folders in OS X. Often people place items in the
Trash thinking this will remove it from the system, but the files remain
on your disk until the Trash is emptied. Similarly, when you download
an installation disk image or other files from the Internet, they will
go to your Downloads folder by default. If you do not remove these, the
hard drive may be clogged with many gigabytes of wasted space.
In addition to the hard drive space, be sure you have adequate RAM
for your uses, especially as you upgrade your operating system and
software versions over time. RAM is the disk space that programs use to work.
In general, newer versions of software require more RAM and increase
the possibility of your system running low on resources and becoming
sluggish. Therefore, be sure to open the Activity Monitor utility
periodically to check how much free RAM you have in the “System Memory”
If the free memory is always relatively low (i.e., less than a
quarter of the chart), consider adding more RAM to your system. If your
system’s RAM cannot be upgraded, think about quitting applications you
are not using to free up RAM for other tasks.
One tip to help with this is to keep the Dock visible instead of
hiding it, as the lights under each Dock item will help you determine
which applications are open. Hiding the Dock somewhat masks this,
allowing you to keep many programs open without realizing it.
Stick to one of each kind of background service
Many software companies offer their own approaches to input management,
firewalls, and malware scanning services. These can be beneficial, but
may also interfere with others that do the same thing. For instance, if
you have two antivirus software packages that each have their separate
methods for quarantining files, malware that is detected may
continuously be flagged by one or the other as they pass the suspected
files back and forth between their quarantine locations.
Additionally, if you install a third-party firewall solution that you
would prefer to use, you might want to disable the system’s built-in
Sometimes similar programs like backup routines and other syncing
services (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.) can coexist just fine, but
redundancy in other cases, especially with regard to security software
and system monitors, may lead to odd or unwanted behaviors.
Use Apple-supplied drivers, if possible
Whenever possible, try using Apple’s supplied drivers for third-party hardware and peripheral devices. Plug the device into your
and see if it can be configured to work without installing any
additional software. If so, then considering leaving it as-is, unless
some key feature is missing.
If you do need to install additional drivers, then be sure to use the
latest versions. Often by the time you purchase the device, updates to
its included drivers are available that address bugs and add new
features. Therefore, be sure to either immediately update software
installed from a CD or simply get the latest version online.
Remember to keep these drivers updated by checking the developer’s
Web site for new versions, or using built-in updater utilities.
Hold off on software updates, but eventually do update
Apple and third-party developers regularly update their software, and
while these usually improve the system’s security and stability, there
are times when problems arise from updates. Therefore, if one is
available, consider waiting a week or two to see if others experience
problems from it.
Of course, problems are sometimes specific to a given configuration
and may not always be avoidable, but ones that are more widespread may
be identified on Mac-centric news and troubleshooting sites and forums.
However, do be skeptical of problems described by one or two people on
support sites, since these are places to discuss problems and may
therefore give a skewed perspective of the nature of a given problem.
Regardless of your approach, do eventually install updates if there
is no sign of a widespread problem, but also make sure to fully back up
your system before doing so.
You do not need to regularly run maintenance on your Mac. Often
people outline various “maintenance” tasks for OS X, such as my General Maintenance Recommendation
routines for OS X. These and similar instructions might look like
something to do regularly to keep your system running well, but they
will offer little (if any) benefit to the system. OS X includes a number
of automatic cleaning routines that run on their own schedule and
manage the tasks that require regular maintenance, but beyond this not
much needs to be cleaned or otherwise altered on a regular basis.
In general, these options are only useful for when you are
experiencing a problem such as a slowdown that does not seem to have a
specific or obvious cause.
The one exception to this rule is checking the hard drive for errors,
which is recommended to be done regularly, especially if the system
experiences a crash, hang, power failure, or other interruption. If a
hard drive is failing, it may progressively show errors that can slow
down a Mac, so checking it once every few weeks may help you identify
problems before they lead to data loss.
To check your hard drive’s health, open Disk Utility, select your
boot volume, then click the Verify Drive button in the First Aid tab.
This may pause the system for a minute or two, but will check the
drive’s formatting and make sure everything is in order. You can also
use Disk Utility and tools like SMARTreporter to regularly check the status of the drive’s built-in diagnostics.
Malware and security on the Mac
The last consideration for keeping your system in shape is
awareness of malware and security threats. This topic is always
controversial on the Mac platform because, while rare enough that the
chances of malware attacks are minimal, such threats have increasingly
affected Mac users. Therefore, the long-standing theory that security
software is pointless for the Mac platform has a few holes in it.
The ability to manage malware comes largely from your computing
practices and what you choose to view and participate in online.
However, if you do not know what to look for or are unsure of how to
avoid it, you might find yourself a bit confused as to what to do. Even
though it may sound logical to keep your system updated and steer clear
of predatory deals, spam, popups, and underground sites, in some cases
malware hijacks legitimate Web sites, the infamous MacDefender malware outbreak being just one example.
If you are concerned about malware, first read Thomas Reed’s Mac Malware Guide, which is one of the more thorough overviews of the Mac malware scene and what security options are available.
Secondly, regardless of the techniques for managing and avoiding
threats, if you are still feeling vulnerable, install a free and
lightweight antimalware utility like Sophos Home Edition, the open-source ClamXav suite, or even Symantec’s iAntivirus
from the Mac App Store. (However, keep in mind this last option does
not have an auto-update routine and relies on updates through the App
Store, so its threat definitions may be significantly out of date.)
Other antimalware tools may be similarly useful, but often require
purchase of a license or subscription to keep current.
Regardless of what tool you choose, be sure to minimize its impact on
your system by disabling any background services it runs, such as
behavioral analysis, on-access scanning routines, and secure keyboard
entry options, unless you absolutely need them. While it is arguably
safer to keep these features enabled, they are also the most intrusive
and can sometimes lead to bizarre behaviors, kernel panics, and
slowdowns. However, most of the time having these tools set to run on a
schedule or only on-demand will not show any problems, so in this way
you will only benefit from using them as a helper for identifying
With such a tool installed, a good approach to take is to scan
anything you are uncertain about. If you see items in your downloads
folder and are curious about what they are or where they came from, the
first thing to do is perform a scan on them with updated malware
definitions. Following this, you can check them out further by viewing
Overall, if you keep your Mac streamlined and updated, and avoid
arbitrarily installing any program you come across in order to try it
out, then your system should stay snappy for years to come.